Through 11 games, the season was sweet. The Chiefs were 7-4, had just seemingly overtaken the Denver Broncos as the second best team in the AFC West, and appeared to be a strong contender for the playoffs and Super Bowl.
Then things torpedoed downward for three weeks. Through 14 games the Chiefs sat 7-7, and their playoff hopes could have been labeled as less than minimal. Showing a resiliency that was born when left tackle Willie Roaf retired the day before training camp, the Chiefs won their final two games of the season to finish 9-7 and got into the playoffs when those ahead of them could not match their final two wins. Another high.
Finally, the season came to a crashing end when a once-potent offense and dominating run game could not dent one of the worst run defenses in NFL history.
While disappointing at times and embarrassingly so at the end, the 2006 season was not a failure. Not many teams bring in a new coach and make the playoffs that same year. Larry Johnson legitimized his 2005 season and removed all doubt that he is a premier running back. The defense improved from one of the league's worst to a respectable level. The Chiefs developed a more physically and mentally tough persona.
However, it's obvious they can still improve, which now falls on the coaches and front office. With that in mind, we pass out some offseason assignments for the staff to improve this team from a playoff participant to a playoff winner and Super Bowl contender. Since NFL games are predominantly played on Sundays and head coach Herm Edwards is often characterized as a preacher, the assignments are quotations from the Bible.
Carl Peterson, Denny Thum, Bill Kuharich and Herm Edwards:
"COUNT THE COST!"
This is the brain trust of the Chiefs organization. They need to huddle and take inventory of the roster. The rebuilding of the roster began last year and needs to continue this year via free agency and the draft. There are some players whose entire NFL career has been with the Chiefs and their career needs to continue in KC unless they decide to retire. Tony Gonzalez, Larry Johnson and Jared Allen are elite players who need to have new contracts, finishing their careers in KC. Will Shields and Trent Green have earned the right to evaluate their futures and if they want to come back for another season. They both have the ability to play at a high enough level to lead the Chiefs far into the playoffs next year.
There are other players who have spent the entire career in KC, but need to continue it elsewhere (if at all). Ryan Sims' lack of production dictates he find another residence. Dante Hall's and Eric Hicks declining production dictates their relocation. The need to get Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page on the field dictates Greg Wesley's departure.
The team is in need of an infusion of talent at the defensive tackle position. They need to find a big body that is difficult to move, will eat up blockers and push the pocket backwards. They need to pair that big body with a penetrating defensive tackle who, with quickness, power and technique, can consistently get into the opponents backfield.
The brain trust must rebuild a once-dominant offensive line. The Chiefs hid two offensive linemen on the roster this year because of their potential - center Rudy Niswanger and guard Tre Stallings. The Chiefs need to decide if they are ready to step in and take advantage of their size, ability and youth. The Chiefs need to find a franchise left tackle who provides the quarterback with a level of confidence.
Finally, this team needs at least one (maybe two) wide receivers who can make big catches in a big game. The last two playoff games have been replete with drops from the wide receiver position. Because of Larry Johnson, the Chiefs frequently see eight-man fronts, leaving man-to-man coverage on the outside. The Chiefs have not had a wide receiver step up and show he can consistently make a team pay for dropping eight in the box.
I'm not at all suggesting that Edwards is cocky or arrogant. What I'm saying is that Edwards' biggest failure this season was his inability to get his team to carry enough passion and intensity yet relax and play well on the road to win games. Edwards needs to quietly show humility behind the scenes by contacting those who have been able to do it and are likely willing to talk with him. He needs to pick the brains of such people as Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson.
"STUDY TO SHOW THYSELF APPROVED."
Mike Solari's first year as offensive coordinator was pretty good. He had to play the first third of the season with a new left tackle, new right tackle, a backup quarterback and a tight end converted to full back. Solari's short coming is that while he knows what identity he wants the team to have (a physical, running attack with downfield play action passing) he hasn't quite figured out how to set up a defense so that he can run what he wants to run effectively.
The analogy I'll use is that of a boxer. Young, talented boxers must learn how to evolve from a fighter to a boxer. If a boxer's strength is a right hook, he won't be effective if he comes out and just throws right hooks. He must come out with jabs and upper cuts to set up the right hook. This type of balance makes the right hook more effective.
Solari, just learn how to set up the running game and the play action passing with short passes and misdirection (reverses and boot legs). Those types of plays will soften up a defense stacked to stop the run and slow down pass rushes. Solari can still have a team that runs the ball, as its main core, he just needs to learn to set it up. He needs to study the play calling of successful teams like the Steelers and the Patriots who like to run the ball to see how they set it up. Developing this type of balance will also help to keep his star, Larry Johnson, fresh.
"BE FAITHFUL OVER A FEW THINGS!"
The improvement of the defense in 2006 is a highlight for the Chiefs. When you factor in that Gun was hampered by having a defensive tackle on his roster that has starting talent, it is amazing what they accomplished. Defensive tackle aside, Cunningham has some talent to work with that is a good mix of veterans and youth. The youth of Jared Allen, Tamba Hali, Jarrad Page, Bernard Pollard, Derrick Johnson and even Kawika Mitchell combined with the veteran leadership and savvy of Ty Law and Patrick Surtain provide Cunningham with much to work with.
Simply put, Cunningham must get more out of these players. He needs to figure out how to elevate Johnson's abundant talent into consistent playmaking. He did it with Keith Bulluck in Tennessee; he needs to do it with Derrick Johnson. Cunningham must determine the best way to use athletic and physical safeties Page and Pollard combined with savvy (but honestly a step slower) veteran cornerbacks Law and Surtain. He must accelerate the development of Allen and Hali from good young players to consistent game changers at defensive end. He did it with Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith; he needs to repeat it with Allen and Hali.
Those are the assignments. If the executive and coaching staffs are successful in completing them, the Chiefs should spend more time climbing and at the top of the roller coaster and less time plummeting to the bottom of it.
On to the 2007 Offseason
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